As a rule, when intellectuals contribute to public debate on any issue of public concern in any country, it is an entirely wholesome development, and one deserving every encouragement. That is truer if the intellectuals involved know how to communicate even the most abstruse area of knowledge vividly, clearly, compellingly. For, when we say we desire ‘informed public opinion’, one of the best ways of bringing that about is by encouraging well-trained minds on any subject relevant to a public policy question of general concern to help their fellow-citizens by throwing a bright light on the subject. That is why news and current affairs editors everywhere try to maintain a roster of experts that can be called upon to comment on issues occasioning public controversy.
The history of political thought has been, in a sense, a tussle between two ideas regarding who should govern: the idea that experts should rule and the idea that the people should rule themselves. It has been a never-ending tussle, and just when you think the idea that the people can and should rule has won, we see established democracies tossing out elected governments and installing rule by technocrats. The issue is important for this blog for a simple reason: in international development, the belief that experts know best and should shape public policy in developing countries is as difficult to kick as an addiction to cocaine.
So, let’s be clear: while the allurement of technocratic competence in a crisis is understandable it remains just a trifle absurd to suppose that technocratic competence can replace democratic politics rather than being its humble servant. Experts have a huge role in a crisis, financial or otherwise, but to believe that finding a path out of a crisis is the sole business of experts is not only wrong but naïve. For, the response to a crisis is inherently and inescapably political. And this is true on at least two levels.